The Democratic Party's public enemy No. 1: Howard Schultz

The Democratic Party's public enemy No. 1: Howard Schultz
By Alex Seitz-Wald and Jonathan Allen and Allan Smith with NBC News Politics
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The former Starbucks CEO's potential independent presidential candidacy has gotten off to a very rocky start.


WASHINGTON — He's only been in the 2020 presidential fray for two days, but Howard Schultz has already accomplished the near-impossible: Uniting the Democratic Party.

Against him.

Everyone even loosely affiliated with the party, from billionaire centrist Michael Bloomberg to the hard lefties at Justice Democrats, has paused their ideological infighting to join together in the open season on the coffee mogul and his potential independent presidential bid.

The hostility is prompted by a fear that Schultz, the ex-Starbucks SEO, would split the anti-Trump vote and get the president reelected. The threat might be overblown, but the fear and anger is real, especially since Trump himself reportedly sees Schultz as an asset to his campaign.

"We are focused on defeating Donald Trump, and anyone who shares that goal should vote for the Democrat nominee in 2020," said Democratic National Committee spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa.

As Schultz embarks on a months-long national tour, one well-known Democratic strategist wants to make sure he faces more protesters like the one who interrupted him Monday night in New York City by shouting, "Don't help elect Trump you egotistical billionaire a------."

Adam Parkhomenko, who founded the group Ready for Hillary and went on to work for Clinton's campaign, set up the website to help organize aspiring hecklers.

"Howard Schultz has spent a lot of time in the last 24 hours telling America that ideas from women are un-American," Parkhomenko said, referring to his criticism of presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris. "He's as dumb and out of touch as his idiotic indy bid would suggest."

Schultz's former affiliation with the party has added a sting of betrayal for Democrats.

The billionaire still calls himself a "lifelong Democrat" and, along with his wife, has donated $193,000 Democratic candidates and groups over the years. And he insists he has no interest in helping Trump stay in power.

"I promise that I will not seek the presidency unless I believe it is possible to win," Schultz wrote in an op-ed in USA Today Tuesday. "Donald Trump is unfit for office and must not be president for four more years."

But on the cusp of a presidential primary that is likely to exacerbate the differences inside Democrats' patchwork coalition, Schultz has made a point of attacking the progressive ideas gaining popularity among many of the candidates.

He called Warren's wealth tax proposal "ridiculous" and Harris' single-payer health care plan "not American," while also saying "we can't afford" debt-free college, a plank likely to end up in many candidates' platforms.

"What's 'ridiculous' is billionaires who think they can buy the presidency to keep the system rigged for themselves while opportunity slips away for everyone else," Warren fired back on Twitter.

Bill Burton, a former deputy press secretary in the Obama White House who is now working for Schultz, told NBC News that his boss anticipated there would be "immediate vigorous debate about whether this is a good idea."

But he said Schultz has received plenty of positive feedback and questioned the argument that you can't win the presidency without the help of a major political party, even if Bloomberg studied the idea closely and came to the conclusion that it's impossible.

"I'm old enough to remember when people said that president Obama couldn't win, that President Trump couldn't win, and now that politics is even more different from how it's ever been in our lifetime, I'm not sure that those pundits are capable of predicting what's going to happen in November of 2020," Burton said.

Burton, who co-founded the massive Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, acknowledged he's faced some personal blowback from old friends in party politics. And he left the powerhouse Democratic firm SKDKnickerbocker to join Schultz' effort.


"Bill Burton has left the firm to pursue projects he could not have pursued or participated in at SKDK. We wish him well," an SKDKnickerbocker spokesperson said.

And some have suggested Schultz could lure Republican-leaning voters turned off by Trump.

"If Republicans still nominate a weakened president, then there is perhaps a lane for an independent," former Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a vocal Trump critic, said on CBS. "That is difficult to see. But stranger things have happened, and I think we are living in strange times."

Fellow billionaire Mark Cuban, who blurbed Schultz' book and has been publicly weighing his own presidential candidacy, said he's been disappointed that the criticism of Schultz is mostly about how to win and not about the merits of his policy ideas.

"All the feedback I have seen has been related to potential distribution of votes rather than a curiosity about actual solutions and their details," Cuban told NBC News in an email. "If an independent candidate has a better way and provides actual solutions that can solve our biggest problems, that's what I believe we should be looking for."

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